This Shabbat is a special one. Known simply as Shabbos Zachor, it’s a uniquely chosen week where we connect to the holiness and compassion of our infinite Creator by remembering to hate and eradicate our mortal enemy, a whole nation; Amalek. Yup, there is a mitzvah in the Torah to wipe out a group of people. Judaism, a religion of peace and love, folks! Okay, I may be being a little facetious, obviously there’s more to this mitzvah than hate and prejudice. But my point is at first glance the mitzvah is tremendously troubling.
A Nation of Evil
The Torah says very little about the nation of Amalek. In the Chumash itself, there’s really only one event where they show up. As the Jews are leaving Egypt, having just crossed the Yam Suf (where the sea split) Amalek engages them in battle. It’s after that battle that the Torah says,
“Hashem will be at war with Amalek for all generations.” (Shemos 17:16)
Then in Devarim, the Torah references the event again (this is what is read this Shabbos to do the mitzvah of remembering Amalek),
“Remember what Amalek perpetrated against you on the way when you were going out of Egypt. When they chanced upon you en route, struck down your appendage — all the feeble ones behind you — and you were exhausted and wearied, and they had no fear of God. When Hashem, your God, has given you repose from all your enemies around, in the land that Hashem, your God, is giving you as a territory to inherit, you shall obliterate the memory of Amalek from beneath the sky; do not forget. (Devarim 25:17-19)
From these portions we are to understand that Amalek is the arch rival of everything God and the Jewish people stand for, the very embodiment of evil. But to label a people as evil is still tremendously troubling. For reasons I won’t get into now (go read the book of Shmuel if you want the details) almost all of Amalek was wiped out, save one individual, their King Agog. Before he died he was able to have a child and that kept the line going. But instead of being a nation of people, it was mixed into every culture. From that we now live in a world where Amalek isn’t a blood line, but a mentality. What specifically is that mentality? I’m getting there.
An Odd Placement
Shabbos Zachor always falls out on the Shabbos before Purim. We have the commandment to not forget Amalek and we perform that by reading the above parsha from Devarim. But we could do that mitzvah anytime. The rabbis selected the Shabbos before Purim and with good reason. The hated villain Haman (the Hitler of that time) is believed to be one of the descendants of the Amalekite King Agog.
As I’ve said before, Purim is unlike any other holiday because nowhere in the whole Megillat Ester is God’s name ever mentioned. You can read the entire story as a historical event with a series of coincidences. But only in retrospect can you make the decision to see God’s hand in it. And that’s the underlying notion. That we now live in a world with the choice to see God. What’s the flip side of that choice? Doubt.
The whole Purim story kicks off with a massive 180 day celebration held by King Ahasverus. What was the reason for the party? The Jews had lost the first Temple and it was prophesied to be rebuilt after 70 years. Well, that 70th year came and went and no new Temple, so Persia celebrated. Granted it was a miscalculation, but that miscalculation lead to much doubt. Many of the Jews of the time said, screw it, the Covenant is obviously over, let’s party with the goyim! It would take much hardship for the Jews to recover from that decision.
A Really Odd Placement
Shabbos Zachor is always before Purim. But this year it’s also read before the week of parshas Ki Sisa, aka the golden calf. That’s a phenomenon that is much less common (it happens usually 1/3 of the time). As we all know, the Jews get the Torah at Mt. Sinai, Moses then ascends to learn the rest of the Oral Torah, and when he comes down, the Jews (or rather many of them) are worshiping the golden calf. How could the Jews have made such a mistake?
A midrash says that the Jews were told Moses would return after 40 days. When they miscalculated (sound familiar?) they presumed he had died (the midrash even says that the Satan made them see a vision of Moses dead in a coffin). Panicking that they had lost their connection to Hashem, they scrambled to fill that void with the idol of the golden calf. Now, Moses had lead them out of Egypt, prophesying every event along the way, as they were shielded by clouds and fed from mana from the sky. But he’s gone for what seems like 1 extra day and everything goes to hell. Once again we see the power of doubt.
A Choice To Remember
In case you can’t see what I’m getting at, Amalek doesn’t represent some disgruntled nation that hates the Jews anymore (until another Hitler comes about, God forbid). It’s the elements in our lives that contribute to doubt in God. We’ve all had tremendous moments where we knew God was an active participant in our lives. It was crystal clear. It’s only after those moments fade that we start thinking, “Well maaaaybe that was just a coincidence. If God does in fact exist, does he really care about X thing I’m about to do?” And so we do what we do and almost always regret it.
The parsha from Devarim, that we will read on Shabbos morning speaks to this. If you look above, it says Amalek attacked the “feeble ones behind you — and you were exhausted and wearied, and they had no fear of God.” The rabbis say that the feeble ones weren’t the old and the weak who couldn’t keep up with the rest of the Jews. But where the excited and devout sit up front in shul, the ones that don’t really want to be there sit in the back and sneak out during the haftarah reading, that’s who Amalek attacks. The ones who are in doubt. The ones who are struggling the most with Hashem. They’re the ones who were in the minority to worship the golden calf and the ones who were first in line at King Ahasverus’s party.
So after you hear parshas Zachor, keep in mind the coming week has two very different energies. The energy of giving in to doubt like the worshipers of the golden calf. Or the energy of holding firm to emmunah despite what looks like inevitable destruction as the Jews did in the times of Esther and Mordechai, who overcame and made history. Which do you want to remember?